Should you use real brands in your fiction writing, or are you better off creating your own?
With more people self-publishing their novels than ever before it's possible to also see a sharp increase in real brands and trademarked company names being used in works of fiction. The two are no doubt related, with many indie authors turning their back on the traditional publishing rules and etiquette. For many authors and publishers, using real brand names in a firm no, but perhaps the reasons why have become lost in the ether and need re-examining.
Firstly let's look from a legal standpoint. You should in theory seek permission to reference a brand name or company name in a work of fiction, but you'll probably be ok not doing so, though there are some guidelines you should adhere to. Anything that paints that company or brand in a bad light is likely to antagonise the rights holder to the point where they insist you remove it. The more ubiquitous the device, like iPhones and iPads the easier it is to say their names are in the common vernacular.
So why shouldn't you fill up your novel with brand names? There are a few major reasons that spring to mind and one interesting one you probably haven't considered.
Firstly are you sure your brand is global and well known to every territory you're going to sell your book in? Will every UK reader know what a Motel 6 is, or will every US reader know what a Travelodge is? What about a 7/11 in Europe or a Spar in the US? When you're referencing a brand name without any further information you're assuming every reader knows what qualities and traits that brand is famous for. The Olive Garden might sound like an upscale one-off boutique restaurant to anyone outside the US!
Another issue with using brand names in this way is that the moment you do so you infer a sense of realism to your story. Once the reader comes across the names of real-world coffee shops and household goods brands they assume the novel is ultra-realistic and set squarely in the present day. This may not actually be the case, you may have a setting of 2030 or 1990 in mind, but the presence of current brand names and company names means the reader will have a hard time placing the action in the past or future. Equally if the action in the novel becomes fantasy-like it's going to feel at odds with the descriptions of real-world establishments.
Finally, the most important reason not to use real brands and company names is that you miss out on one of the most exciting creative parts of your job as an author, coming up with unique brands for your novel! Where would we be without Duff Beer or Sirius Cybernetics, Soylent Green or Wayne Enterprises? The main reason you refer to brand names is usually to communicate something about the character using that brand. If a character frequents a trendy hipster coffee bar we are making a value judgement about them. If they use a particular brand of electronic device we are again making a judgement as to their character. So why not utilise this to come up with your own brands that give added insight into your character's personal style and taste.
If you still desperately want to use existing brands consider changing a few letters to form a deliberate mock version. Caffé Nero becomes Café Noir, Apple iPhone becomes Tapple MyPhone, Motel 6 becomes, well Hotel 6 or Motel 7!
Mentioning a real brand in your writing is unlikely to bag you that free Ferrari you've been after, but I'll keep you posted it one turns up outside my door in the next few weeks!